Trump Tempest in a Tulsa Teacup
The folks who might know the least about how Trump won in 2016 might be the folks of Trump 2020.
Well, that kept the pundits busy over the weekend…
President Donald Trump is “furious” at the “underwhelming” crowd at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday evening, a major disappointment for what had been expected to be a raucous return to the campaign trail after three months off because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to multiple people close to the White House.
The president was fuming at his top political aides Saturday even before the rally began after his campaign revealed that six members of the advance team on the ground in Tulsa had tested positive for COVID-19, including Secret Service personnel, a person familiar with the discussions said.
Trump asked those around him why the information was exposed and expressed annoyance that the coverage ahead of his mega-rally was dominated by the revelation.
While the Trump re-election effort boasted that it would fill BOK Center, which seats more than 19,000 people, only 6,200 supporters ultimately occupied the general admission sections, the Tulsa fire marshal told NBC News.
The campaign was so confident about a high turnout that it set up an overflow area, which it had expected to attract thousands. But the plan was scrapped at the last minute when only dozens gathered at the time the vice president and the president were set to address the crowd inside.
“It’s politics 101: You under-promise and overdeliver,” a Trump ally said, conceding the missteps the Trump 2020 team took in the lead-up to the event by saying nearly 1 million people had responded to requests for admission.
Much of the blame is falling on campaign manager Brad Parscale, who in the days leading up the event aggressively touted the number of registrations, but those close to him stress that his job is safe, for now.
Last month, after dismal polling revealed that the president is trailing the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, in key battleground states that Trump won in 2016, Parscale was reprimanded and a deputy was brought in to help steer the ship.
The interwebs have had their fun with it, ranging from the childish glee and blaring headlines about KPop and TikTok to the usual CYA of the Trump campaign people laying out excuses. In the long run, those things and the empty seats won’t matter all that much. But the way the campaign to get President Trump four more years is going about their business starting to reveal some things will matter a great deal. Starting with the aforementioned Brad Parscale:
Let’s back up though, and review how then-digital director Brad Parscale made his name and bones delivering for Trump 2016, which led to him being named campaign manager for Trump 2020.
“If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you think he’s a 21st-century Steve Jobs,” says a Republican consultant who knows Parscale. “He’s not an asshole. He’s kind of a huckster. But he’s smart enough to realize he’s a huckster.”
Parscale’s true gift wasn’t deploying new, cutting-edge uses for technology. It was skillful management: cobbling together and empowering a fast-moving, opportunistic digital team staffed by experts from the RNC, commercial ad placement firms and social media companies, which flew about a dozen employees into San Antonio to work alongside Parscale’s team. At Parscale’s direction, the digital operation carried out an unprecedented tilt toward social media, for which the Trump campaign spent nearly half its media budget.
arscale’s all-in approach toward Facebook was perfectly suited to his unique candidate. “The key to digital success is bottling lightning, and with Donald Trump, the lightning strikes every five minutes,” says Wesley Donehue, CEO of Push Digital, who worked on Marco Rubio’s failed bid for the 2016 presidential nomination. “You will never be able to replicate any digital strategy you had for Donald Trump for any other candidate or any corporation because there is no other Donald Trump.”
Academics and political strategists say digital ads don’t do much to persuade voters to switch candidates. They’re aimed primarily at raising money, firing up the base and suppressing turnout among opposition voters — which perfectly matched Trump’s needs.
In large part, Parscale’s approach was a matter of necessity. In 2016, Trump was anathema to the GOP’s traditional wealthy donors. But small-dollar contributors — “the Army of Trump,” Parscale would later call them — loved him. Trump’s supporters were uniquely responsive to donation appeals on social media; his celebrity and gut-level appeal commanded eyeballs. “The hardest thing in digital advertising is getting people’s attention,” says Coby. “You got a cheat code with Trump.”
You can read the rest of that, and plenty of other reporting, on the rise of Brad Parscale both in positioning and monetarily. Parscale greatly resembles his boss in many ways, throwing a political switch and going all in on the business opportunity of President Trump’s rise to the White House. Parscale has not been subtle on social media and elsewhere about enjoying his new-found wealth and status, touting it as part of the success story that comes with aligning with all things Donald Trump. Which makes sense, since Donald Trump’s primary business in the decade leading up to his 2016 campaign was marketing and monetizing Donald Trump as much as any real estate deal. Success IS the Trump brand.
Which is why something like the Tulsa turnout gets amplified bigger than it usually would.
Parscale looks particularly foolish with his constant bragging on social media. His now infamous “Death Star” tweet was all over social media. The jokes write themselves, especially with the over-emphasis on the “Teens on TikTok” angle that folks such as AOC gleefully were touting. Over-reserving the tickets to make fools like Parscale think a million people where going to show up is a funny, and very well executed prank, but that isn’t what kept the seats empty in Tulsa. The lingering threat of Covid-19, the general unease over potential protests, and the campaign’s own touting of an oversized crowd all had a hand in the see of empty blue seats inside the arena. President Trump reportedly was not happy.
The more important thing is what does Trump 2020 do now. Since that bragging “Death Star” tweet, there has been little in coherent messaging from the President or his campaign staff. The ongoing crises of Covid-19, civic unrest, and an economy that — despite the rhetoric — can not be thrown back to “on” like a light switch has kept the president and his team reactionary and defensive. Trump has his opponent in Joe Biden set, but has not yet made much of a dent into his opponent who is leading in every national poll and threatening in nearly all the vital swing state polls. Failure might be an orphan, but Trump and company are going to be looking at Brad Parscale as the daddy of this debacle.
It’s Parscale’s own fault. He’s been writing checks with his mouth all over social media while cashing huge checks from Trump, the RNC, and other affiliated money streams into his Parscale Consulting business. You could call it hubris, and it is, but it reveals something about the Trump campaign as a whole that too few discuss, especially those inside the White House who have the ability to do something about it.
The folks who might know the least about how Trump won in 2016 might be the folks of Trump 2020.
Trump 2016 really was “lightning in a bottle” of a high-profile candidate with tons of name recognition, the explosion of social media fusing with news and information streams, incumbent fatigue that every two-term administration leaves in its wake, and most importantly the perfect opponent to direct it all at in Hillary Clinton. That last one is far and away the most important one, but least talked about. A uniquely unpopular candidate with a freight train’s worth of baggage, and not particularly warm and fuzzy on TV. “It’s me or Hillary” was a winning message for a vast amount of folks on the right before you ever filled in the name at the top of the ticket. All credit in the world to Trump 2016 on capitalizing on it and winning when almost no one, including themselves, thought they would. But that campaign operation is not Trump 2020.
Already there are movements and rumblings of Trump “putting the band back together” from 2016, recalling and reorganizing in May with key aides who focused on the Midwest and Florida in 2016. Parscale found himself getting a “deputy campaign manager” in Bill Stepien along with cliched “I will continue to support Brad Parscale as he leads the campaign, working with all of our partners in states across the country, and helping to coordinate all of our efforts to ensure the president is re-elected” soundbite to the New York Times from him on May 27th. Further complicating things is reports that Jared Kushner and Ivanka are angry with Parscale but outing him would also cut off the top of the money funnel that spins campaign related expenses to the Trump family.
But that is all secondary to the most important thing in the world of President Donald Trump: Don’t make Donald Trump look bad. The president spent over 15 minutes of his Tulsa speech pushing back on the mocking he has taken on social media over the West Point ramp video and him sipping water with two hands, stories that would have died by now had the president just left them alone. It is doubtful he will just let the spectacle of a two-thirds empty “comeback rally” go anytime soon.
This failure right here will be orphaned by the Trumps, and might soon be calling Parscale daddy at the insistence of Brad’s former Daddy Warbucks, who will then be in the market for a new campaign manager.
Originally published in Ordinary Times on 22 June, 2020